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HarperCollins' 26-checkout limit on libraries' ebooks starts today

March 7, 2011 |  2:00 pm

In late February, HarperCollins announced that its ebooks could be checked out by library patrons 26 times, after which a library would need to re-purchase the ebook in order to lend it out again to its patrons (again, for a maximum of 26 times). That 26-checkout limit begins today.

The outcry against HarperCollins' move was so strong that the publisher felt compelled to issue a explanatory statement, saying that it had "been listening." Although it made no move to change the 26-checkout policy, that statement explained the decision:

Our prior e-book policy for libraries dates back almost 10 years to a time when the number of e-readers was too small to measure. It is projected that the installed base of e-reading devices domestically will reach nearly 40 million this year. We have serious concerns that our previous e-book policy, selling e-books to libraries in perpetuity, if left unchanged, would undermine the emerging e-book eco-system, hurt the growing e-book channel, place additional pressure on physical bookstores, and in the end lead to a decrease in book sales and royalties paid to authors.

Some library consortia have responded by declining to purchase new HarperCollins ebooks, Library Journal reports today. "The library model has always been you purchase and own it for perpetuity, and I don't think the format should matter as long as rights are being protected," Joan Kuklinski, the executive director of the Central/Western Massachusetts Automated Resource Sharing consortium, told Library Journal. "No one tells a library they have to pull their books off the shelf after a certain number of circulations, so why should this be different?"

The video above, created by the Pioneer Library System of Oklahoma, shows why many librarians think ebooks shouldn't expire. Although the 26-checkout figure was based on what experts said was the average life expectancy for a book on a shelf, these librarians show that in their library system, popular books that have been checked out many more times are doing just fine.

The arguments get into somewhat arcane detail -- library consortia, cost-per-circulation figures -- but the upshot is that librarians are frustrated by the hurdles they face in offering ebooks. Is HarperCollins the biggest issue? Not really. Macmillan and Simon & Schuster -- two other of the big six publishing houses -- have not yet offered ebooks of their titles to libraries at all.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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